For eight years, Chris Kluwe was one of the most controversial players in the NFL. Although most frequently a critic of League policies, the unabashedly vocal Kluwe made headlines in 2012 when he took on the Maryland state assembly, in defense of same-sex marriage and freedom of speech. In 2014, he retired from football, after the NFL allegedly blacklisted him for his progressive views.
Today, although Kluwe continues to fight for basic human rights, dignity, and equality, he is best known within the online game community as a veteran MMO player, an esports advocate, and a frequent critic of GamerGate, recently appearing in a debate with adult film star Mercedes Carrera.
In this wide-ranging interview, MMORPG.com contributing columnist Morgan Ramsay spoke with Kluwe at length about whether esports are real sports, the state of GamerGate, and what's next for him after football.
Ramsay: At 20 years old, you were playing for the UCLA Bruins, and in just four years, you started your NFL career with the Minnesota Vikings. Was that a big change in your life at that time?
Kluwe: A fairly big change. There are a lot of guys who play college football, but very, very few get to go on to play professional football. For me, I knew I was going to get the chance to show that I was really good at something. I was very fortunate; a lot of people don't get that chance.
A lot of people I knew in college were out partying and doing fun stuff, but that wasn't an option for me. To play at my best, I had to be focused on football. That meant not showing up for a practice or a game hungover, and not missing classes. I did miss a lot of classes, but I made sure I stayed eligible because, otherwise, they were going to take the scholarship away. There wasn't a lot I would say I sacrificed, but I definitely didn't get the same college experience because of football.
And I got married to my wife in my senior year of college. We had conversations like, "So you're going to be an NFL player? What's your backup plan?" I was like, "I don't know. Let's give the NFL thing a shot first." That was fun. I was sure I could find something. I probably would have gone into teaching, or maybe law enforcement. I have no idea.
Ramsay: Was transitioning from college football to pro football difficult?
Kluwe: Yeah, one of the difficulties was just the speed of the game itself. Everyone on the field was the all-star on their team, and you had to keep up.
Ramsay: Did you learn anything about pro football that you would only learn as a pro?
Kluwe: Just what the locker room was like, what the game experience was like, and just what it looked like out on the field. People who watch from the stands get one perspective, but it's not nearly the same perspective as being out on the field. On the field, it's just this chaotic environment and you're not really sure what's going on at any given time, but you still have to make it work.
Ramsay: Sounds like my quick matches in Heroes of the Storm. Did you see that broadcast on ESPN2? What do you think about esports sharing TV with "real sports"?
Kluwe: I think esports are definitely real sports; you need the physical dexterity to play them, you need to react fast enough, and most of them require teamwork. You have to work with a group of people, coordinating your actions, against another group of people. That's essentially what sports is: trying to use physical dexterity and teamwork to overcome an opponent.
Ramsay: Do esports really have a physical component?
Kluwe: Oh, yeah, there very much is. You need the reaction time and awareness to recognize when there are opportunities, and then take advantage of those opportunities, whether you're clicking on the map or you're trying to see where you normally can't. There are definite skills you need to have.
There's generally always going to be a physical component involved. Playing mind chess against yourself is probably the only one you wouldn't need natural physical ability. But I think there are varying degrees of physicality within sports, so trying to define a sport simply based on its physicality is just as silly as trying to define it based on whether it has a ball or not.
Ramsay: Shortly after that broadcast, we heard from ESPN's Colin Cowherd who said, "If I am ever forced to cover guys playing video games, I will retire." What do you think about that?
Kluwe: I think Colin Cowherd retiring would be a good thing for everyone. It's interesting that an ESPN employee whose channel covers lumberjack contests and bowling tournaments would have an issue with something he considers not a sport.
I don't think there's a problem with covering esports as regular sports. If that's not your cup of tea, fine, don't watch it, but there are plenty of people who do. There's this perception that esports aren't real sports, but the fact remains that there are a lot of people watching them.
Ramsay: In 2013, you were promoting esports with Riot Games. Despite the progress esports have made toward mainstream acceptance, do you think that's a practical goal?
Chris’ LoL and NFL video for Riot’s eSports division.
Kluwe: I think mainstream acceptance is a practical goal because a lot of kids these days are growing up with computers in their household. The barrier to entry for something like League of Legends or Heroes of the Storm is much, much lower than it might have been 10 or 15 years ago. No longer do you have to be the goggle-eyed glasses-wearing nerd; everyone has a computer.
Ramsay: Are we just waiting for the critics to die off?
Kluwe: There are people who will never accept esports as real sports. Generally, until a new generation comes up and takes their place, nothing really changes. You just have to wait.
Ramsay: Can more be done?
Kluwe: I think the different genres should be combined under one league. You could have an esports league put on by publishers, where each is a team owner. Within the league, you'd have the MOBA, RTS, and FPS genres. The publishers could showcase their own games, but the league should be composed of different games, so you can see the experience and skill it takes to be successful.
Ramsay: Do you think MMOs are missing an opportunity here?
Kluwe: With sports, once you get too many people on the field, it becomes very hard to keep track of what's going on. While I, personally, would be entertained by watching a 20 vs. 20 Battlegrounds, I don't know if it's feasible to pay attention to that much information in front of you at one time.
Look at soccer with 11 players on the field. That's a lot of information to take in. You need instant replays and breaks where you can go back and see what happened. There aren't tons of opportunities for that in an MMO combat environment.
Ramsay: A game developer brings you in as an esports advisor to help design competitive PvP in a future MMO. What do you tell them?
Kluwe: The core thing you should have is balance. Every side should be as equally balanced against each other as possible. If a player feels there isn't balance, they won't continue playing. There are usually two ways to go about that: you can make everyone the same but with slight variations in skills, like World of Warcraft; or you can go the route where there are so many combinations that the best ones arise in the meta itself. That's the approach Riot Games takes in League of Legends.
Ramsay: Speaking of what we should or should not be doing, you've been talking about GamerGate lately. Should we still be talking about GamerGate?
Kluwe: For all intents and purposes, the movement itself is over, but the people within that movement who caused the movement to be one of harassment are still very much alive and kicking. They are still very much trying to find people to harass. We need to figure out how to deal with casual misogyny online. Why do we have environments where we allow these things to happen? Can we make the Internet a safe place for everyone who wants to game or who wants to be in tech?
Ramsay: Do you think taking the hate out of GamerGate is possible?
Kluwe: I don't think it is for the simple reason that those people who were smart enough to understand that GamerGate was being used as a harassment vehicle, instead of working towards ethics in game journalism, have all left. They possessed the introspection necessary to realize they didn't want to be a part of something that wasn't holding people accountable for their actions.
No one is disputing that ethics in journalism is an important thing. That very much is an important thing, and that is something that should be pursued. However, if you're using harassment to achieve that, that's not something normal, rational people will put up with. If the people who drive a lot of that harassment aren't held accountable within GamerGate, there's no way the movement can change.
Ramsay: Is ethics in game journalism really that important?
Kluwe: On a scale of one to ten, I'd give it a two or a three. Starving children in Africa, race relations in the United States, and avoiding nuclear war are more important. I'm not going to say you shouldn't care about ethics in game journalism though. If it's important to you, care about it. At the same time, ask yourself, "How am I trying to achieve this goal? Does that reflect on me in a way I'm willing to live with?"